From July 17 through 24 2020, our family took a vacation in the Scottish Northwest Highlands. We originally booked a holiday cottage in Gairloch for the week before(July 4 through 11) but the government lock-down owing to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put paid to that plan. As luck would have it though, the same firm we booked the cottage through offered us another accommodation in the neighbouring village of Poolewe, just six miles from Gairloch for the following week, when shops and restaurants were allowed to open up. Having spent months at home, we naturally jumped at the chance!
The Northwest Highlands is not a place you would want to go for warm summer weather. But for natural beauty and a place to contemplate God’s glorious creation, I can’t think of a better place. The cottage we secured was spacious and comfortable with a large and well maintained garden. There was no internet connection – not even a telephone signal – but after months of the kids sat behind computer screens during the lockdown, it was exactly what the doctor ordered; a place where we could fully re-connect as a family and cast away our anxieties about all the dark events happening in the world.
The village itself only has about 200 inhabitants, many of which are retired couples who have sold up from the cities and moved here to enjoy their autumn years.
This part of the British Isles(57.7 degrees north latitude) is renowned for its beautiful, pristine beaches and unspoiled coastline, making it a favourite haunt for birders and other nature lovers. In mid July, dark night time skies are out of the question owing to strong twilight. The weather forecast didn’t bode well for star gazing during this week either, so I decided against bringing along a telescope but instead decided to carry a pair of binoculars; little and large – my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 and my Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 high-power binocular which was mounted on a lightweight tripod/monopod. In addition, my eldest son brought along his 8 x 32 compact and my younger boy his 6.5 x 21 Papilio II.
But the trip was not entirely about leisure, at least for my wife. As a research technician in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, her research group had been given the task of sampling the sands of the beaches all along the northwest coast to measure a number of radioactive isotopes. This work was commissioned by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). That meant that we were to visit a number of beaches centred on Poolewe, which worked well for everyone; the boys could enjoy a swim and we could get good walks in along the beach collecting the samples.
I had decided to bring along my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 as my main daytime binocular, partly because I had been feeling guilty about treating it more as an ornament than a dedicated field instrument. But as I was to discover, this little binocular is built like a tank(albeit a very small one lol) and was meant to be properly used. Indeed, I was more than delighted how well it put up with the vagaries of the northwest weather, which can change from bright, calm and sunny one minute, and then wet and windy the next. And during this week away, it endured heating in the Sun, sand, spray and even heavy downpours, coping admirably with the changing conditions. But it wasn’t exactly a free lunch; those difficult conditions meant that I had to clean the optics a couple of times during the week!
Contrary to what some binocular commentators have made, the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is easy to use. They claim that the small exit pupil of the binocular(2.5mm) is hard to square on with one’s eyes. But like all things in life, that’s only true for lack of practice. Indeed, I have given mention before that in strong daylight, there is little advantage to using a larger glass as one’s exit pupil shrinks to 2 or 3mm at the most. Furthermore, the best part of the your pupil is the central few millimetres, so when imaging with a small exit pupil you are minimising the optical aberrations inherent to one’s own eyes and this yields fine images only limited by the quality of the glass.
Glassing on the beach is one long adventure. Many types of birds – waders and gulls especially – grace the shoreline – providing many opportunities to study their antics. The rich colours, contours and grains of rocks, polished by the tides over countless millennia, all kinds of seaweed, beached jelly fish, crabs and other crustaceans, and brightly coloured shells of long-dead sea creatures, present many wonders to the eye, as do the ceaseless activities of the lapping waves constantly yielding their treasures as flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. Each new binocular field presents something new and unfamiliar; endless visual riches provided by our Creator.
For higher resolution daylight observations, I set up my Pentax 20 x 60 porro prism binocular. This fully waterproof binocular also has a small exit pupil of 3mm, and thanks to its aspherical eyepieces, it delivers a very sharp, high-contrast, flat-field images, with great centre-to-edge correction.
Mounted to an extra-tall but lightweight tripod, with a strong ball & socket adaptor, the 20 x 60 is ultra-stable and very easy to use and manoeuvre. I was able to enjoy great close-up views of the barren, rocky crags in the surrounding hills, and boats anchored in the shallow bay a mile or so from the cottage. It also provided excellent images of trees in the neighbourhood, where I enjoyed watching crows, wood pigeons and even the occasional collar dove drop by.
But the 20 x 60 also came in handy for continuing my monitoring of the solar disk using home-made white light solar filters constructed from Baader astro-solar material. Indeed, during brighter spells in the morning or afternoon, I could whisk the binocular-mounted tripod out from the utility room and observe the Sun at a moment’s notice. Indeed, I got a minor surprise when I spotted my second spot of the summer season at 11.43 BST on the morning of July 22. It didn’t grow or amount to very much though – just one tiny sunspot crossing the solar disk. The last time I recorded it was on the afternoon of July 31. I’ve not seen another thus far into August(22nd).
Alas, the Sun continues to be unusually quiescent.
There was no night during our trip where I enjoyed long clear spells. The best I got was a couple of nights where the sky was partially clear, but it was enough for me to see Comet Neowise in deep twilight shortly after midnight on the morning of July 19 near the Plough asterism. By then, it had faded back to a third magnitude object, but the image scale in the Pentax binocular was good enough for me to get a decent view of its nucleus and bright dusty tail. I also put the 20 x 60 to good use observing a few choice binocular doubles.The tripod and its ball and socket adaptor allowed me to achieve rock-solid stability and silky-smooth tracking of a number of systems, enabling me to resolve a few targets that I could never achieve using a monopod alone. The 20 x 60 served up gorgeous images of Albireo, the’ fake triple’ system of Iota Bootis, O^1 Cygni, Mizar & Alcor, the lovely orange pair 61 Cygni, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and the lovely chance alignment of Eta(blue) and Theta (orange) Lyrae, which presented as a grand colour contrast ‘double’ somewhat to the east of the main stars of the celestial Lyre.
On the warm and sultry afternoon of July 22, we took a stroll down the road to pay a visit to one of the most famous cultivated gardens in Scotland. Inverewe Gardens, situated on the shores of Loch Ewe, is home to some of the most exotic floral species in all of Britain, thanks to the mild Gulf Stream which keeps the site largely frost free, even in the depths of winter. Here you’ll find pre-historic trees such as the Wollemi pine, and all manner of rhododendrons native to China, India and Nepal. Himalayan poppies adorn the beautiful walled garden at the site, as well as fascinating Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with their aromatic leaves and beautiful, variegated trunks. As you can imagine, such a visit wouldn’t have been complete without bringing along the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 ultra-close focusing binocular, which provides stunning up-close-and-personal views of the many ornate flowers that grace the grounds of this extraordinary place.
My wife actually wanted to visit these gardens in May, but the lock-down made this impossible. But better to visit in July than not pay a visit at all, I suppose.
Magnificent trees grace the gardens, but I was especially taken by the Eucalyptus. As it turned out, I discovered the same kind of tree at the bottom of the garden in our rented cottage, so my guess is that, at one time in the past, the owners managed to plant a young tree and watched it grow to maturity over the years.
Here’s a question for you: can a banana tree thrive in Scotland?
You what mate?
We encountered several varieties of Bamboo on our walk too:
In one part of the garden, we stumbled across some wicker soldiers commemorating those who lost their lives in the great world wars of the 20th century:
The garden had many beautiful flowers in full bloom, like these Violet Geraniums:
The Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 proved to be the perfect instrument for examining these wonders of creation in exquisite detail. With its ultra-close focus of just 18 inches, can you begin to imagine the levels of detail one can capture?
Douglas had so lost himself looking at close-up views of the foliage that I had to remind him that the instrument also served as a regular binocular; you know; for glassing objects at a distance! At one stage, I found him strolling ahead on the walk while keeping the Papilio to his eyes. Not a sensible thing to do though, as he was to find out. After issuing him a stern verbal warning, he fell headlong into a flower bed lol! Luckily no damage was done to the flowers or the glasser on this occasion. The gardeners too were none the wiser(phew!).
As I mentioned in my review of the instrument linked to earlier, the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 is a belter of a small binocular, serving up excellent high-contrast images at a very attractive price (just over £100 UK). I still use it quite often for all kinds of activities.It’s got a big, silky-smooth focuser and delivers a generous 7.5 degree true field. Indeed, I’ve not needed my Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 ever since the arrival of this instrument on the scene.
The beach sampling was more a labour of love than anything else. Always done when the tide is out, the bigger beaches required three samples, while the smaller ones only required two. My wife had to carry a GPS system to accurately record the positions of each sample and each one consisted of a few hundred grams of surface material. All of this had to be recorded while the sampling was taking place.
In the end, 32 bags of sand was collected from 8 beaches. And boy did the collective weight add up!
Just a few yards walk from the cottage stood an old war grave yard with an interesting pre-Christian Pictish stone. But I was much more interested in watching a platoon of screeching Swallows flitting to and fro over the weathered gravestones in pursuit of flying insects with the little Leica glass. It’s not the ideal birding binocular, that’s for sure, with its rather small field of view(6.5 degrees) and small exit pupil compared with a larger compact glass, but it certainly did the job admirably enough throughout the trip.
The cottage had a little booklet advertising all the goings on in the catchment area. My interest was especially piqued by the number of local churches; Catholic, Church of Scotland, the Free Church and the Episcopalians to name just a few. Alas, none were open at the time of our visit but I was pleased to see that many were conducting online services on Sundays to cater for the spiritual needs of their congregations. The people of the northwest of Scotland and the Highlands and Islands still maintain a strong Christian faith; in sharp contradistinction to the secularism now all too common in the main towns and cities in and around the central belt.
The furthest north we ventured was Ullapool, located about 45 miles northwest of Inverness(the northernmost city in the British Isles). Here you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Lewis. Normally, this small seaside town is teeming with tourists at this time of year but because of the pandemic(or is it a scamdemic?) its streets and shops were unusually quiet. We enjoyed having a rummage through the various nick-nack shops looking for small gifts for our family and friends. I was delighted to find a book shop there as well, where I was able to pick up a title on introductory birding by the comedian(remember the Goodies?) and veteran twitcher, Bill Oddie. Truth be told, I had no idea how anyone could say so much about our feathered friends!
It made hilarious evening reading!
There are many fine hills and mountains to climb in the region but on this trip we did not attempt any. Perhaps the most imposing is Ben Eighe, just south of Loch Maree. Towering over 2,000 feet above the surrounding plains, it forms a chain of mountains in Wester Ross, two of which exceed 3,000 feet in elevation and are thus designated proper Munros.
If the evening remained fine, I would take a stroll down the road from the cottage to do a spot of glassing with the Leica pocket binocular along the River Ewe, linking Loch Maree with the open sea. One of the shortest rivers in the UK, at scarcely one mile long, the Ewe has long been prized by anglers for its Sea Trout and Salmon. And because it is so close to the sea, its appearance can change dramatically from hour to hour!
All in all, this was a very refreshing family trip away, with many fond memories of grand beaches, delicious lunches and gorgeous scenery – all provided courtesy of our Creator.
And, God willing, we will return here again some sunny day!
Neil English is an avid optics enthusiast who is currently enjoying a new lease of life sorting out what’s what in the world of binoculars. If you like his work, why not consider making a small personal donation or consider purchasing one of his seven books. Thanks for reading!